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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Sardinia: The Beach Vacation of a Lifetime

Here's how you know you're from Miami: cold weather is not your friend.

When I moved from Miami, I was a naive little girl who couldn't wait to experience such things as "real seasons" and "snow" and "wearing all those cute and elegant winter clothes". That feeling lasted a grand total of about a week when I realized--in the middle of an Ohio winter-- that I actually had to drive in that wonderful snow I had been so anxious to see and it actually hurt to get out of bed in the morning and get dressed because of how cold it was.

Fast-forward to the present, living in beautiful Italy where the sun is eternal and warm weather reigns. Well, it doesn't. Fall is here in full swing, with temperatures that this Miami girl considers dead of winter (think mid-60s). This is going to be the fourth real winter of my entire life and I am still not used to it at all. My productivity level has reached a new low and I'm just about ready to throw in the towel already, retire under my covers, and hibernate until next April.

In an effort to combat the winter blues, today I'm going to share with you some highlights from the other major trip of the summer: the wonderful island of Sardinia. Oh, what's that? You never actually thought anyone went to that island? Yeah, neither did I until I got to Italy and realized that was where Italians spend their summer vacation. At first, the only reason I wanted to go (or felt like it was my duty to go) was because there's a UNESCO site there and you know that we have a mission to see all of Italy's UNESCO sites. Then we got there and I never wanted to leave. I have to say, as much as I love Italy and all the places we've seen, this was the first time that I thought "I never want to go home."

How to Get To Sardinia from Italy

There are a couple of ways to get to Sardinia: you can fly or you can take the ferry. Spoiler Alert: for the love of everything you hold dear, fly! We decided to take the ferry for two reasons: 1) we took our car and it was cheaper to take it on the ferry than to rent one for the amount of time we spent there and 2) we took Arya. Unfortunately, the ferry ride was the absolute worst part of our trip. 

First off, the actual ferry trip is like four or five hours long (compared to a 45 minute flight). There are two companies that take you from Rome's port in Civitavecchia to one of Sardinia's ports at Olbia: Tirrenia and Moby. We chose Tirrenia because it was cheaper and apparently we just haven't learned our lesson of "you get what you pay for".

I don't know how many of you have taken ferries or how much this ferry differs from other ferries, but this is the way it works: you arrive like two hours before you're set to sail and hang out for a bit until they allow you to drive your car into the boat. Once you're parked, you have to take everything you think you'll use during the trip because the garage is closed for the duration of the trip. Then, depending on what ticket you chose, you either get a private cabin, or a nice airplane style seat, or in our case, you get to hang around on the deck. This is mandatory if you plan on bringing your dog. 

Here's what they don't tell you about the deck when you're booking this ferry: there are no seats. Not one. Basically, we had to either stand or sit on the floor for five hours. If you try to even find an out of the way spot inside the ship with your dog, they'd kick you out. Of course, the Italians that had done this before came prepared and brought either beach chairs or towels to lay out and tan. We had no idea what to expect on the way there so we were completely unprepared. On the way back, we wised up and brought all our beach towels and even some sandwiches. 

Even though it was all a little bit of a shock, we made the best of it and still managed to take some cool pictures.

The Beaches of Sardinia

We made our home base in a town called Budoni because we found a great deal on an apartment for our stay. Then, we did nothing else but go to the beach as much as we can. Sardinia has hands-down the best beaches I have ever been to. Before that trip, the Italian beaches I had been to had pebble sand, deep waters with too many waves, and they were cold. Sardinia is nothing but beautiful crystal clean waters, fine sand, and shallow waters as far as the eye can see. It was truly paradise, the caribbean of Europe. Here are some of our favorites:

Cala Brandinchi
This was our favorite beach. It was more like a small bay, so the real estate on the sand was hard to come by, but it had the cleanest, most beautiful waters I have ever seen. It was also close to where we were staying, which made it even better. We loved it so much, we couldn't help but go twice!

Sos Dorroles in Cala Gonone
Cala Gonone had a splendid beach as well, but we headed to a small section called Sos Dorroles, which was the dog section of the beach. Let me tell you about the dog section of this beach: it was better than any beach in Miami, maybe even Florida, that's for sure. The water was crystal clear, a theme that held true throughout Sardinia, it was more rocky on the bottom, but that made it good for snorkeling. Unlike the dog beach near Rome, both times we went the beach was nearly deserted. Arya could have stayed there for the rest of her life.

Our first look at Cala Gonone.

Arya had a blast!

Look at how cute they are!

Arcipelago della Maddalena
There are a small group of islands off the north-eastern coast of Sardinia called the Maddalena Archipelago (Arcipelago della Maddalena in Italian). You have to take a short ferry ride (much better than the one from Rome) from Palau to get there. There are seven main islands and a bunch of small islets that are only accessible by boat. We were only there for a short day trip, but if I were ever to return to Sardinia, this is definitely where I'd stay. We got to explore the main island, La Maddalena, and its beaches, which were all within a few km of each other on one main panoramic road. All were equally stunning. I can only imagine how beautiful the other beaches on the other islands must be.

This picture has absolutely zero filter. It's that blue and that clear!

Where to Eat in Sardinia

One of my favorite things about Sardinia was the sheer amount of agriturismi that specialized in providing excellent, huge dinners with the local specialties. For about 25€ to 30€ a person, you had like a million course dinner (okay more like five different plates of antipasti, two primi plates of pasta, and a secondi, plus two desserts and coffee). I mean, it was so much food that we literally just couldn't finish it. Here are some of the places we went to: 

This was our first taste of the local cuisine. As I mentioned above, it was a ton of delicious food. The only negatives were that they only accepted cash and the service was average for Italy standards in that they really didn't explain what they were giving you, they just put it out there.

Jaime's "so much yumminess" face. All of that was just the appetizer!

This was a seafood restaurant in Budoni. It was a traditional restaurant, not an agriturismo, so it was the most we spent on a dinner during our stay in Sardinia, but it was worth it. We had my favorite: oysters, which were spectacular, the best we've had in Italy. We shared a typical Sardinian dish called la fregola sarda, which consists of pasta similar in appearance to couscous with seafood. One of the best things about seafood dishes in Italy is that, if the restaurant is good, when they say the pasta has seafood, they don't mean just one or two tiny shrimp, they mean theres more seafood than pasta.

Fregola Sarda

During our stay in Sardinia, we managed to squeeze in one day of non-beach related sightseeing in the town of Alghero. The town was pretty, but what made it memorable for me was the awesome lunch we had at this focacceria. The house specialty was the Focaccia Milese, with tuna, tomatoes, and other goodies and it was spectacular. All for the price of 2.50€ each!

This was the star of our trip to Sardinia. This agriturismo was way up in the mountains, about 20 minutes from the nearest village. I specify this because, as it tends to happen with us, we realized way too late that we might not have carried enough cash for our dinner and we were already extremely late for our reservation. Before we sat down we told the owner our dilemma and he assured us not to worry about it. After another spectacular dinner, similar to the one in Agriturismo F.lli Corda but with an explanation of every dish, we were short a few euros so Jaime was going to drive back into town to find an ATM. The owner would not hear of it, nor would he allow us to schedule a bank transfer for the remaining part of the bill. We were absolutely mortified for the rest of the night, but to have experienced such an act of hospitality was simply inspiring. It was definitely the highlight of our time in Sardinia.

Suckling pig, a specialty of Sardinia
Sardinia was probably the biggest surprise for me of all the places we've visited in Italy. It really exceeded my expectations to such an extent that whenever someone asks me now what my favorite place in Italy has been, the answer can only be Sardinia. If you're looking for a beach vacation, a romantic getaway in Europe away from the crowds, please please please consider Sardinia. It will be the beach vacation of a lifetime!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Where to Stay: Agriturismi in Italy

I know I said my last post on our weekend in the Amalfi Coast would be my last post on our summer road trip, but bear with me and hear me out on this definite last, short post.

I don't usually write about our hotel stays on our many trips throughout Italy because, frankly, what Italy has in beautiful sights, amazing food, and culture, it lacks in affordable hotel accommodations. In fact, I've only ever written one post on this subject: about our agriturismo stay in Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol. To this day, it is still our favorite.

Until we got to the Amalfi Coast, that is.

I talk about agriturismi a lot on the blog and I've never really explained what they are. In English, I guess the best translation would be a farm stay, but I don't like that term too much. For me at least it conjured up an image of a dilapidated red barn house in the middle of an Ohio cornfield where you have a haystack for a bed. In Italy, a farm stay is much more picturesque, especially if you're in the Tuscan countryside, or in our case, the Campania region in southern Italy.

Agriturismo Nonno Tobia is located in a town called Agerola, near the Amalfi Coast. By the time we started looking for a place to stay in Amalfi, any hope of a cheap HomeAway apartment was long gone and the only thing available were hotels at ridiculously expensive Amalfi Coast prices. So we found Nonno Tobia, which ended up being less than an hour away from Amalfi and Positano by car, and also within an hour drive to many of Campania's major tourist attractions like Pompeii and Naples.

We rented two rooms, both absolutely adorable. The rooms are named after flowers with a different, corresponding color scheme. Both our rooms also had these great balconies with flowers and a view of the ocean in the distance (that was my one requirement when looking for a place to stay in the Amalfi Coast: I had to be able to see the ocean).

The one thing that set this agriturismo apart from all the other ones we've stayed at was service. That Italian hospitality everyone wants to experience when they come to Italy? We definitely got it here. When we arrived we were greeted by the most handsome and friendly German Shepherd, who immediately fell in love with Arya of course. The owner's son immediately began engaging us in conversation as soon as we got out of car. He gave us tips on where to park and where to eat in Positano and Amalfi, and he even offered to take care of Arya on the day we went to Positano! Up until that point (and since then), we have never been so well taken care of!

Arya's boyfriend
We had breakfast and dinner, both absolutely spectacular! Breakfast consisted of coffee, tea, two different types of freshly squeezed juice, and an assortment of homemade bread and pastries. Dinner was the standard multiple course Italian dinner, with an antipasto of hams and cheeses, a primi of pasta, and a secondo sausages with veggies. All this was home cooked, washed down with wine produced by agriturismo, dessert (of course!), a shot of limoncello and coffee. We also got to have dinner with the other guests and the owners would come and go to chat. We had to translate most of the conversation for Carolina and Joaquin, but they loved this experience best of all the places we stayed at while we were on the road with them.

The Dining Room set for breakfast.

Jaime and I usually stay in agriturismi if we can and we would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a different travel experience in Italy. However, they aren't for everyone and it would definitely depend on what you want to see during your vacation in Italy. Here I've thought up of some pros and cons of staying in a typical Italian agriturismo:

  • Pro: Affordability. This is the number one reason we choose to stay in agriturismi 90% of the time. They usually have high and low season prices, sometimes broken on a per night basis and other times on a per person, per night basis. You can expect to pay as low as 25€ per person or maybe 40€ and up if its on a per night basis. 
  • Pro: When in Rome...If you want to stay in Italy like a local, this is what the locals do when they go on a weekend trip to the countryside. 
  • Pro: Traditional food. In order for an agriturismo to be labelled as an agriturismo in Italy under tax laws, they must produce, use, and sell a certain percentage of typical regional specialities. This will include everything from the veggies, to the fruits and the jams they make with that food, to the olives and olive oil, and of course, the wine. If your agriturismo offers you dinner, take it! It will likely be the most authentic, homemade meal you will experience in Italy. 
  • Con: It's not a hotel, so don't expect 5 star service. What I mean by this is depending on which agriturismo you choose (and what you're paying) sometimes they might not wifi (or even regular cell phone service is its very remote), sometimes they might not make up your bed every morning, and you're definitely not going to get 800 count Egyptian Cotton bedsheets. At least not in any of the agriturismi we have stayed at, but we have seen some really luxurious-looking ones! The good news: they're never as bad as a hostel and you can count on heated water and a heater in the winter. 
  • Con: You will not find an agriturismo in the middle of Florence. These places are always outside of cities, although how far away from the city really depends on you. This also means...
  • Con: You will need a car. The fact that you would need a car is really the biggest drawback to choosing to stay in an agriturismo if you're coming to Italy for a few weeks. This is because if what you are looking for is to save money on an expensive city hotel, you might actually be paying more in gas and rental car prices by staying outside the city. But really, this all depends on where you want to go, the kind of liberty of movement that you want, and how many people you are traveling with.  
If you want to browse different agriturismi in all parts of Italy, check out this website, which is where we find all the agriturismi we stay at!

Disclaimer: We were not compensated in any way by the kind folks of Agriturismo Nonno Tobia. All our opinions are our own. Unless otherwise stated, I receive no compensation from the places I mention in this blog. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Our Weekend in the Amalfi Coast

I thought about breaking this part of our road trip down into several posts, but the truth is if I do that I'm going to be talking about our summer adventures deep into winter (thanks to my procrastination, of course). Instead, I've decided to just do a big hefty post on our weekend in the Amalfi Coast.

After we visited Florence (which I'm not actually writing about since we did much of the same things we did on our first time in Florence), we made our way back to Rome. We spent one day resting and taking care of some housekeeping (read: washing clothes from nine days on the road) then we hit the road again and headed south to Naples and the Amalfi Coast. I have yet to write about our two times in Naples because honestly I'm still trying to figure out what to make of that complicated city (all I know is that there is nothing in the world like Neapolitan pizza... nothing). 

We stayed at an agriturismo near the actual Amalfi Coast, which boasts a very central location to many of Campania's star attractions like Pompeii, Naples, and all of the towns of the Amalfi Coast. On our first day there, we went to go see the Amalfi Coast's most famous town: Positano. 

Here's what you need to know about Positano: it was a medieval port that suffered through a declining period, then became an extremely popular tourist attraction from the 1950s onward, when John Steinbeck wrote an article about it in Harper's Bazaar. It's been in several films, like Under the Tuscan Sun, and most importantly: it's incredibly beautiful. 

Jaime & I on the Amalfi port waiting for the boat to take us to Positano. 

"I'm on a boat" selfie!
We arrived in Positano by boat, which we took from the actual village of Amalfi. According to our agriturismo host, it was much cheaper to park in Amalfi than in Positano. This might have been true if we weren't four people, as we had to pay for four kinda pricey boat tickets. That's just the price we had to pay to see one of Italy's most expensive coastlines. 

The best part of coming in by boat is that the view is unparalleled. 

One of the things I wanted to do in Positano was buy pre-made sandals at La Botteguccia (here's a video by Browsing Italy showing you how it's done) as Positano is known for sandal-making. There are lots of different places to buy them from, but they usually have roughly the same prices and the same models. It's not exactly cheap (mine were about €45), but if you're like me and buying sandals is always a hassle because of too-skinny feet, it is definitely worth it. 

After my shopping was done, we decided to hit the beach. There are two beaches in Positano: Spiaggia Grande which is the one you see when you're coming in by boat, and the smaller Spiaggia Fornillo. We chose the latter assuming it would be less crowded. It was a little bit of a trek to get there and unfortunately the weather was not cooperating with us (it was super windy, cloudy, and it eventually rained on us while we waited for the return boat). 

The Amalfi Coast is made up of quite a few villages staring with Positano in the west and ending with Vietri sul Mare in the east. With only two days to explore, we obviously would not be able to see it all, so the next day we decided on visiting Ravello. Jaime decided on Ravello that day and I have to admit I was quite surprised. Ravello is known for two villas: Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone. I didn't expect the gardens to be quite as beautiful as they were and I certainly didn't expect that we'd be allowed to take Arya with us. In the end, I'm glad we decided to go there as the views were magnificent and we had a great time. 

The boys mocking us. 

The Terrace of the Infinite in Villa Cimbrone. 

A silly pose that actually came out awesome with my dress blowing in the wind!

Hydrangeas: one of my favorites in Villa Cimbrone!

We took the long way back to Rome (it might also have been the only way), driving through the famous Amalfi Coast highway that hugs the coastline and gives you amazing views of all the towns. It's one of National Geographic's 500 Drives of a Lifetime! It's also known for being terrifying and dangerous as it's a two way highway that is super narrow and always filled with tour buses. 

Arya loves it when she's in the passenger seat on a road trip!

View of the town of Amalfi. 

No photoshop, the water was just that blue!

No idea what this church's name was, but it was very pretty. 
That's all for our weekend in the Amalfi Coast and my last post on our awesome Summer road trip with Carolina and Joaquin!

For other posts on our summer roadtrip, check out:

Treasure Tromp